The Monster Among Us – Processed Foods
It really is not fair.
You’ve done your homework. Read all the literature. Maybe even consulted a nutritionist. Made a solemn pact with yourself that from here on in you are going to give your body and mind the care that they so richly deserve after a lifetime of abuse. New leaf. Body is a temple and all that.
So why is it that all the healthy, nourishing edibles taste, well, not very edible? And, conversely, why are all the delicious, melt in your mouth foods now and forever off limits?
Well, to fall back on standard parent answer number one: Nobody ever said life is always fair.
The bottom line is pretty straight forward. In order to enjoy a healthy, disease free life it is imperative to eat healthy foods in their natural state, when possible, and avoid nasty artificial, additive laden substitutes. And the very worst culprit is……..
But the good news is your brain can be trained to actually learn to enjoy fresh, nutritious meals and snacks.
So What Exactly Are Processed Foods?
Since they have been blamed for obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, brain fog, and much more we really should know what constitutes these bad dudes.
According to the “pros”, processed food is defined as any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to milling, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, canning, drying, dehydrating, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state.
This also includes the addition of preservatives, flavours, natural or otherwise, or substances approved for use in food products such as salt, sugars, and fats.
Minimally processed foods that are pre-washed, cut up, and bagged for convenience are not harmful as an occasional purchase. Foods processed to lock in freshness and nutritional quality such as canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna are also usually safe.
However foods with added ingredients to add flavor and texture such as sweeteners, spices, oils, colours, and preservatives such as jarred pasta sauce, salad dressings, yogurt, and cake mixes are getting to the really “iffy” spectrum. Crackers, chips, and deli meat are even further down the spectrum.
The most heavily processed foods are frozen or pre-made meals and include (please don’t shoot the messenger) frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.
Heavily processed foods should be avoided when possible. However minimally processed ones have a small but useful place in healthful diets. Low fat milk, whole grain breads, pre-cut vegetables, and fresh cut greens are some examples of these.
Everyone has heard this thousands of times but it rings true. Examine the ingredient list and analyze the nutritional facts list. It is vital to look for hidden sugar, fat, and salt. Products labelled “natural” or “organic” does not always mean what it is supposed to. Sneaky devils. And do not try to let yourself off the hook by righteously declaring that you never put salt on your food. Well, points for trying but the manufacturers have already added way too much salt to their products during processing. Look for low sodium or reduced sodium on the labels and rinse canned goods with water to remove at least some of the salt. As for fat, beware of products containing trans fat and/or saturated fat.
Refined grains, or those that have had the bran (which contains most of the fibre) and germ (which contains protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals) leaving nothing but white flour or rice, are definitely way down on our spectrum. And, by the way, labels stating that these items have been fortified should also be avoided.
Let us not forget sugar, that bad boy. And that includes caloric sweeteners, and high fructose corn syrup. Very bad except in tiny amounts, and keep in mind that most processed foods contain added sugar.
So Here Are the Worst of the Worst…
But do not lose hope. Their are delicious alternatives coming up after this bad news.
Bacon (I know…right at the top of the list. I feel your pain.)
Dried fruit (who knew?)
Most pizzas (heavy sigh)
Sweetened breakfast cereals
Pastries, cookies, and cakes
French fries and potato chips
Now for the light at the end of the tunnel…
Not all processed foods are unhealthy. Advice from Stacey Nelson, registered dietician and manager of clinical nutrition at Massachusetts General Hospital, is as follows: “Ignore the marketing claims on the front of the package, flip it over, and go right to the list of ingredients.”
Here are some suggestions:
Canned beans – rinse off the salty canning liquids and toss into salads.
Canned salmon, tuna, and other fish – flake onto salads or mix with extra-virgin olive oil and chopped celery for a delightful sandwich spread.
Frozen fruits and veggies – buy only the ones that do not have added sauces and seasonings.
Peanut butter – perfectly acceptable on whole grain crackers or bread
Yogurt – only plain, please, and top it with fresh fruit.
OK so here is the bad and the not so bad:
Sugary drinks are particularly harmful. When consumed in large amounts especially they can drive insulin resistance thereby being linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. So…drink water, soda water (I find it delightfully refreshing with a twist of lime), or herbal tea.
Pizza – choose homemade. Not as handy but much healthier.
White bread is horrendous and may lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar. For those who can tolerate gluten, try Ezekiel bread or whole grain bread.
Fruit juice is assumed to be healthy, but no. Again, some healthy ingredients but high amounts of liquid sugar. Wait for it…sometimes as much as Coke or Pepsi. Check your labels, make your own juice, or try pomegranate and blueberry juices.
Here is another one that is going to hurt:
Fried, grilled, or broiled food. Goodbye barbecue but these methods are among the unhealthiest cooking methods. Many chemicals formed during high heat cooking have been linked to an increased risk of cancer and heart disease. Choose milder cooking methods such as boiling, stewing, blanching, and steaming.
French fries and potato chips are very high in calories and may also contain large amounts of carcinogenic substances. Potatoes are best consumed boiled (I know, right) and if you are craving something crunchy try baby carrots, crisp celery, radishes, or nuts. Mmmm..fresh out of the garden fresh vegetables are delicious, especially if you grow your own so they don’t have yucky things added to them.
Low fat yogurt is not as healthy as you would think. Yogurt can be incredibly healthy but most grocery store yogurts are bad for you. Often loaded with sugar to compensate for the loss of fat to make them “low fat and healthier”, they don’t provide the much touted probiotic bacteria. News flash: when pasteurized most of the good bacteria is killed. Better to use plain yogurt and add fresh fruit, nuts, or a wee bit of granola.
Ice cream is loaded with sugar. It is one of my very favorites but I have learned to make my own with fresh fruit and much less sugar.
Now on to processed meats, and yes this includes bacon, processed ham, and sausages. These are a few of my favorite things. However people who consume these products have a higher risk of many serious ailments such as colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Try and try again to really seriously cut down on these but when you just can’t resist one more day try to buy from local butchers who refrain from adding so many unhealthy ingredients. Or cozy up to a farmer.
Cheese is another of my go to foods. And it is healthy in moderation. Loaded with nutrients, one slice packs all the nutrients of a glass of milk (low fat of course). Do not confuse processed cheese with real cheese. No comparison. Read labels and look for dairy only and very few artificial ingredients.
Now let us cut to the chase. You can believe this or not as you choose but I honestly found this method to help me make the changeover. Picture a lovely chocolate chip cookie in your mind. Only think of how dry it is with no drink to dip it in. How overly sweet your mouth feels afterwards, not to mention how the sweetness is chomping away at your teeth enamel. Then visualize a smooth, round, succulent peach. The aroma that rises to assault your senses from the very first bite. The juicy, robust flavor. Your liver and other organs rejoicing with glee. A little off the top maybe but try it before you poo-poo it.
The key to healthy eating starts with you. Read labels. Buy fresh and unprocessed. Be aware of how much and what you eat. Focus on whole foods. Soon your heart, liver, digestive system and more will be thanking you profusely while you have more spring in your step, are more alert mentally, and watch the excess pounds melting away before your eyes.